Are 1000 Pictures Worth One Word?1

Daniel Greenberg


On at least four occasions during the past eight years, people have attempted to film documentaries of The Sudbury Valley School, for presentation to the public. Two of these were done by professional TV crews and aired on commercial television stations. One was done by a graduate student of film-making who was a staff member at the school. The fourth was done by a group of graduate students in TV techniques, under the supervision of their professor. In all the cases, the people involved were serious about their work, sympathetic to the school, and highly motivated to come up with a good product. Still, the universal consensus of people at school who saw these documentaries was that they all failed to give an uninitiated viewer a good idea of what the school was about. In fact, many people felt that the films were misleading, giving more false impressions than true ones.

These experiences have been the focus of much thought and conversation at school. Why haven’t we had more success? Why can’t we be of more help to prospective movie-makers? Indeed, time and again we have found ourselves completely at a loss to provide any assistance at all. When asked for help, our standard reply has been: “We don’t really know how to do it. If we knew, we would have done it ourselves. That’s why we’re accepting your offer to try . . .”

In a similar vein, we haven’t had any more success with still pictures. Over and over, we have tried to put together photographs depicting the school--for a possible book, for an exhibit, for our new catalog (each time we write a new catalog)--and just as often we have failed. The visiting committee of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which recommended our accreditation, found it a matter of concern that we did not publish more pictures (and, along with these, more “anecdotal material”) about the school. But no amount of effort on our part has yet brought success.

It’s not for lack of motivation. We have always been eager to develop new methods of communication and publicity. There are so many things we could do with a good documentary or picture book--so many places we could show them, so many people we could reach who don’t want to read our voluminous printed works, and don’t feel like going to the trouble of arranging for speakers from the school. Good visual material would be worth its weight in gold, quite literally, in terms of new enrollees and perhaps new sources of income. Why, then, have we failed?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words.

It’s taken a long time to figure this one out.


To get a handle on it, we’ve got to understand exactly what a picture does to the person who views it. In and of itself, a picture is nothing more than a collection of forms, which are capable of being perceived by a viewer. To have meaning, these forms must be interpreted by someone. A picture does not convey or contain its meaning, nor does it have an intrinsic meaning. Even the meaning that was ascribed to it by the person who made the picture is not in the picture; it is merely one person’s interpretation of the picture--a particularly important person, to be sure, since he was the creator of the picture, but nevertheless still an interpreter.

Does all this sound terribly abstract? Perhaps, but it is basically simple, except that most of us don’t have occasion to think about it that often. When we do think about it, we all eventually come to the same conclusion.

A classic example will suffice. Take the traditional detective mystery conundrum: a photograph of a man with a gun in hand standing over a recently murdered person. What does it mean, as it appears, with no further interpretation? Is the man the murderer? Is he a relative or friend who just discovered the body and the murder weapon? Is the gun the murder weapon, or is the man with the gun a partner of the murdered man looking for the assailant? Is he a detective who is examining the scene and the weapon? To an aborigine tribesman, the entire picture would be a mystery, since the gun would be an unknown instrument.

All this is not at all far-fetched in real life. As any archeologist, anthropologist, art historian, or antiquarian will readily testify, it is no easy matter to understand paintings or sculptures left by ancient peoples, with no explanatory text or living tradition to elucidate their content. At best, we can guess what they mean, but our guesses depend entirely on our theories of what these old cultures were all about--which is not much of a foundation for knowledge.

In fact, we can bring the problem even closer to our everyday experience. How often does it happen that we will look at an old photograph we have taken, and tried to interpret what it was all about? Where was it? What were we doing? Were we having a good time or suffering? Alas, a picture is a mute object, and it can only say the words we put into it . . .


What do people do when they look at a picture? First, they try to identify a context for it, and this can only be done in the framework of their own experience and philosophy of life. Thus, if I see a photo of a person in a jogging outfit running along the side of a road, I immediately place it in the familiar context of “running” or “jogging.” An Indian tribesman may immediately place it in the context of “delivering a message”; an African may think of a special religious ritual.

Second, within the context, the viewer tries to identify the individual objects. To continue the example of the previous paragraph, I might quickly identify a “runner,” a “jogging outfit,” and a “countryside.” The Indian might think “messenger,” “messenger outfit,” and “uninhabited country between settlements.” The African might think “priest,” “priestly garb,” and “holy territory.”

Third, with as much as possible of the scene located and placed in a framework, the viewer endows the entire scene with a story or a meaning. This may or may not be elaborate, depending on the person and the circumstances. I may look at the picture as a portrait of a jogger, someone else may see it as a study of endurance, the Indian as an event from recent history, the African as a religious response to some natural disaster.

The mind takes all three steps quickly, very quickly. The whole process of visual interpretation is rapid, and comprehensive: it embraces the whole field of view, and deals with it all. The contrast to verbal processing is striking: words come one at a time, in a string, and they are processed consecutively. It takes a long time to transmit a description, an explanation, or a story through words, from one person to another. That is why a picture is worth a thousand words--sometimes.


It is worth a thousand words when--and only when--the person who views the picture possesses a cultural framework that enables him to obtain from the picture the message that the picture’s creator wanted to put into it. When these conditions apply, a picture is the most effective shorthand that exists. In particular, its value for propaganda or advertising is enormous.

But when these conditions do not apply--that is, when the viewer has a different cultural framework than the creator, and is therefore unable to receive from the picture the message that the creator wished to convey--then a picture is not only worthless, it is worse: it is counter-productive. Because the picture serves to confuse. The creator intends one message, and the hapless viewer sees another message--which leaves both parties worse off than before the picture ever came into being! Instead of being a medium that conveys meaningful information, the picture becomes a means of transmitting misimpressions and misinformation. And it is all so innocent. No intentional evil is involved. There does not have to be a conscious desire to misinform. The motives can be pure on both sides, and the results disastrous to both.

There is a classic, well-known example of this problem. A very famous photograph was taken in 1938 when German troops marched into Czechoslovakia following the notorious Munich agreement. The photo shows one of the civilian onlookers standing on the sidewalk as the occupying soldiers march by, crying copious tears, hand outstretched in a Nazi salute. For years this moving photo was used throughout the world as a symbol of the heartbreak suffered by an oppressed people. The Czech citizen’s tears, the humiliation of being forced to give the Nazi salute, the dreaded power of the occupying army--all were taken to epitomize the personal horror of defeat. Actually, it turns out that the picture depicts a Czech Nazi weeping tears of joy and happily saluting the “liberating” German army! Suppose, for a moment, that the aforementioned picture had been taken originally by a Nazi propagandist, to illustrate how happy the Czechs were with their new rulers. Once published, the picture obviously achieved the very opposite effect on the vast majority of its viewers. If ever signals got crossed between the meaning of the creator and the meaning of the average viewer, this has got to be the prime case.


A picture, then, is only useful as a medium among people with the same frame of reference. If they do not have the same framework, they have a big problem of communication in any medium, but raw pictures are clearly out of the running as candidates for an effective mode of information transfer.

In cases where the people interacting with each other have different reference frames, the traditional first preference for information transfer has been through words, spoken or written--lots and lots of words, put together in as many different ways as possible, to give as many different perspectives as possible on the subjects being discussed. All parties recognize the immensity of the problem, and the basic inadequacy of any medium. But words seem to be most effective for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the slowness involved in their transmission, a factor that provides some necessary time to all parties to get their thoughts together. Lightning speed is the last thing you want in this situation.

Actually, the only really effective way to communicate is after all parties have spent enough time in close contact with each other to develop some common framework. This takes time, time, time, and endless contact. (Somewhere in the second quarter of the 20th century this fact was first fully appreciated by cultural anthropologists and sociologists. By now, it has become common practice in these disciplines to engage in years of field work with people of a different culture before attempting to say anything definitive about their lives, customs, and beliefs.)

It is obvious how all this applies to The Sudbury Valley School. Ours is a different educational framework than the one belonging to the surrounding culture, by and large. In area after area--our organization, our judicial system, our administration, our educational philosophy, our methods of learning and instruction, etc., etc., etc.--we deal with things differently from every other school in the whole country. As we have come to learn, somewhat bitterly, over the years, this fact is a terrible barrier to communication between us and everyone else. People visit for a day or two, or a week or two, and don’t have the faintest notion what we’re about. We write reams of material, and even many who have read it all still don’t get the point. Time and again, we have found that only after years of close contact, and endless conversations, are we able to reach people and create a viable basis for mutual understanding. In light of what I have written above, this should not come as a surprise.

Indeed, in light of all that has been said here, it should be clear that pictures--moving or still--are our worst bet for conveying what we are to people who don’t already know what we are. We should avoid visual presentation, and we should conquer all temptations to use such presentation. Pictures not only won’t help us, they will hurt us, by giving the wrong impression of our school.

All you have to do is think of any example, and you’ll see what I mean. A picture of kids playing outside means “happy, progressive school with plenty of organized outdoors activities” to virtually any American viewer--far from what it means to us. A picture of a School Meeting means “student government” to outsiders. A picture of an SVS class is an “ordinary, seminar-style, class in the progressive tradition” to others. The abyss between our value system and the value system of the outside educational world is so great that it boggles the mind, and blinds vision. Is it not an everyday occurrence at SVS that we “see” things around us that others don’t “see”? Isn’t this one of our most plaintive daily themes?


Modern Western culture lives by the relatively recent dictum, “seeing is believing.” Actually, as I have stressed at some length, it would be more appropriate to say, “we see what we believe.” When we are among people who have the same educational beliefs, pictures can be a delightful addition to our repertoire. When mixing with “non-believers,” the less we refer to seeing the better off everybody is.

I would like to end on a historical note. The central thesis of this article was common knowledge in ancient, medieval, and early modern times. For a few thousand years, learned people accepted as obvious the saying, “non potest fieri scientia per visum solum”--“Knowledge is not possible solely through vision.” Perhaps the time has come to dust off this ancient saying, and restore it to its former prominence--or at least have it handy next time we look at someone’s attempt to depict Sudbury Valley in pictures and wonder why it didn’t succeed.

1. Reprinted from The Sudbury Valley School NEWSLETTER; vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 3-6

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